Lewis’s Arthuriana

Last week I posted my rough draft analysis of CW’s Arthuriana. Then on Wednesday, it was Barfield; yesterday, it was Tolkien. Now today, it’s Lewis. This is a rough draft, so please send me your suggestions for revision!

            Clive Staples Lewis (1898-19663) was a very prolific Arthurian, and his output covers poetry, fiction, and academic work.[1] I do not need to give a survey here, as Brenton Dickieson provides an overview of “Lewis’ Arthuriana in four identifiable periods” in his chapter entitled “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’ Ransom Cycle.” It is worth noting, however, how important this story was to his thought. It was not the one story onto which he tried to map his life and all of his most important writing, as it was for Williams, but it was a story to which he returned again and again. He tried writing it in various genres, as he did with the story of Psyche and Cupid, and (again, like that myth) finally turned to the novel as his preferred means of expression.

Yet That Hideous Strength and Till We Have Faces could hardly be more different, and I think that their differences reveal how the Arthurian story functioned in Lewis’s imagination versus how the tale of Psyche and Cupid did. This is turn is due to the nature and history of the two stories and to who was influencing Lewis at the time of composition and in what ways.

That Hideous Strength is a deeply intertextual novel. As Brenton Dickieson and Charles Huttar discuss in their chapters in this volume, Lewis brought into it elements from the writings of his friends, Tolkien and Williams, as well as from older sources. This novel has received a great deal of criticism, and some readers feel that it is a hodge-podge, or, alliteratively, “an outsized amalgam of medieval legend and modern mayhem” (Schwartz 91; cf. Ward 8-11). This critique, of course, is similar to the objection Tolkien lodged against the Narniad, that it was made up of disparate mythologies insufficiently unified. While these critiques are wildly overstated, and That Hideous Strength follows its own logic of coherence, it is true that there is a larger variety of intertextual procedures followed in this novel than in Till We Have Faces.

I propose that this is due in part to the varied nature of the Arthurian material, discussed above. Once an author chooses to open the door to the Knights of the Round Table, it is hard to shut again. Material from a fifteen-hundred-year period could come in, from Welsh, French, or German sources, bringing late Roman or High Medieval or Victorian trappings with them—or Byzantine, if Charles Williams is one of the sources. And he was a direct source for Lewis, as was Tolkien, which partially explains why conventions of Gothic horror jostle against the notion of an Elvish paradise in the West, and both with biblical materials and a modernist setting.[2]

Till We Have Faces is at the opposite extreme of Lewis’s writing gamut. It is a clean, streamlined myth, a retelling of one story, with as low a reading on the intertextuality meter as is reasonably possible for an adaptation. It lives entirely in its own secondary world; there are very few moments of metalepsis indeed. This is not a value-judgement either way, not an attempt to claim that one novel is somehow “better” than another; merely an observation of the levels of intertextuality in each and a glance at their respective lineages. Lewis was trying to accomplish so many things in That Hideous Strength—wrap up the Ransom storyline that dates as far back as drafts of The Screwtape Letters,[3] satirize college politics, warn against technocracy and violations of bioethics, lay down standards for gender roles and marital hierarchy,[4] bring in Williams’s ideas about coinherence and community, give a plug for Tolkien’s (supposedly) forthcoming Silmarillion, resuscitate Merlin in the modern world, embody planetary influences, illustrate God’s action through people in this world—that the novel feels packed, stuffed, and heterogeneous.

But so does Malory. There, a narrative interlace structure weaves the plot lines together in a complex, counterintuitive manner. In That Hideous Strength, the narrative is fairly straightforward (although there are shifting character perspectives), but the theological implications are many and various.

And indeed, the theological implications are much the same as those in the Arthuriana of his fellow Inklings: Lewis believed that “not everything in this world, including right and wrong, can be explained without recourse to some other realm or state” (Buckman and Ross 5), and in That Hideous Strength, the other realm or state that has hitherto been in the Heavens (in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra) comes down to earth. Buckman and Ross argue that Merlin “became a metaphor for Lewis’ understanding of fantasy, the genre that has to overcome our understandable incredulity in the face of the extraordinary. Lewis’ ambitious novel attempts to bring Arthurian values directly into the modern world” (Buckman and Ross 5). These are values of human dignity, hierarchy, community, environmental stewardship, and—when necessary—violent resistance to tyranny. They are timeless values, and That Hideous Strength is as apposite now as when it was written.

[1] Again, see the appendix on *pp___ for a complete list.

[2] On the point about the Gothic genre, see Schwartz 92-97.

[3] See Dickieson, *title of Notes and Queries piece

[4] See Benjamin Shogren’s chapter, “Those Kings of Lewis’s Logres: Arthurian Figures as Lewisian Genders in That Hideous Strength,” *pp. __ below.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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4 Responses to Lewis’s Arthuriana

  1. This is a pretty important point: “That Hideous Strength and Till We Have Faces could hardly be more different.” And for the reasons you give.
    I wonder if there is a further reason: Joy Davidman was involved in helping Lewis write TWHF. It is impossible to judge the real impact of this, and yet I have that nagging suspicion that her critical ear and feminine instincts were factors in the uniqueness of this myth.
    And here’s the link to the N&Q piece: http://intl-nq.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/04/23/notesj.gjt031

    Liked by 1 person

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